Friday, October 31, 2014

Halloween Spirit

I just completed my ritual workout at the local Y, where there was no sign of Halloween: not a ghost or skeleton or costume to be found. Everyone was very, very seriously working away on their treadmills.  I wanted to put on the wolfman mask I had in my pocket and say, "it's never to late to have a happy childhood!"

To mark this holiday of silliness, Lynn Schiffhorst (my wife and prolific author of children's stories) has just published her 18th story about Giggle called "Giggle and the Skeletons."  (available on Kindle and other

For those who may not know, Giggle is a ten-year-old ghost, visible to those she likes; she is playful and goes to school and often tries to help people in need. Nothing scary about Giggle, or her neighbor, Mrs. Wigglebone, a skeleton lady with a long red dress who's quite hospitable.

I can't possibly sum up the hilarious antics of this story, with its dogs, kids, ghosts, and skeletons; all I can do is recommend it as fun reading for kids of any age. And be grateful that I live with a creative woman who delights people every day and reminds me that a day without laughter is a day lost.

Happy Halloween!

Friday, October 24, 2014

Autumn and Mortality

I have lived for the past four decades in central Florida, where autumn does not really exist, where the rhythm of life is distorted.  Here, a few leaves fall, and in January, the sugar maples turn red, but until Christmas time, usually, the weather remains warm, and the air conditioning is on, at least part of the day. So we are deceived with a sense of endless summer.

We are cheated of a rare beauty, not only of autumn leaves and bare branches shaking in the chilly breeze but of nature's slowing down and preparing to die a bit--a healthy bit of memento mori. 

That's why my wife, Lynn, with her great poetic sense, insisted that we visit friends in Newport, Rhode Island in October. We have just returned with pictures of autumn in New England, the best kind, where leaves turn brilliantly red and yellow next to churches and other structures built during the Revolutionary War period.

The tavern we ate in last week dates from 1676, and our hotel was on Purgatory Road. On Farewell Street, we found several ancient cemeteries, their headstones barely visible after so many centuries of salty air. We came for the trees but savored the history, too, and the pumpkins lined up in front of a white clapboard church visited by George Washington.  Autumn does not get any better, any more American.

And anyone looking for a bit of authentic Halloween in old churchyards on narrow lanes filled with dead leaves or in vast, "haunted" mansions should come to Newport in late October, when the beauty of the island sparkles and its great Ocean Drive is quiet, less traveled.

Such a trip was tiring and expensive but worth it for two people who miss the chill of autumn.  We need occasional reminders to turn inward and reflect, as the year, like our lives, nears its end.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Atheism as a religion

I recently met a retired teacher, an intelligent man who, in the course of a conversation, mentioned that he was an atheist. I said nothing, respecting his beliefs (or lack thereof). I wondered at first if he mean "agnostic," then, reflecting on the confidence with which he spoke--and the fact that he was not a listener--I decided, No, he knows the difference, and he has made his choice.

Sam Harris, one of the prominent New Atheists who have published books in the past decade criticizing religion, is a neuroscientist who values reason above all and, while  dismissing any notion of God, prefers not to call himself an atheist.

Yet in his latest book, Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality without Religion, excerpts of which I have read, he seems to have found that reason is not enough to explain the meaning of life and reality. It seems that emotion--that often suspect, "effeminate" entity foreign to the scientific mind--has its place, though Harris would not put it this way.  The self-transcendence that he finds in art or nature is not, he insists, irrational. Reason for him is still the dominant player.

Like the Romantic poets of England and the Transcendentalists of the American nineteenth century, and many since, Harris has found satisfaction (happiness?) in some form of transcendence of material reality, independent of religion.  Yet he insists on the primacy of reason, and it is reason, divorced from feeling, that keeps him safely among the "atheists," free from what he sees as the corruptions of religion.

At least, Harris is more open and positive than Richard Dawkins, the British author who has become rich and famous attacking God and belief and who is the subject of a recent New Republic article ("The Closed Mind of Richard Dawkins"), which suggests that his atheism has become its own type of narrow religion.  For Dawkins, et al, science is unquestionably right and has all the answers there are to understanding man and his world. He would agree with the behaviorist B. F. Skinner, who once said that the goal of science is the destruction of mystery.

To me, as a theist, the loss of mystery--that sense of awe found in the mystical tradition as well as in art that evokes the unknowable and unknown, is tragic.  The great poets and writers, following Aristotle, always connect head and heart, always write or create with feeling as well as ideas. And at their best, they evoke the unknowable mysteries of humanity in a way that neuroscience will never rival.

Yet thinkers like Dawkins and Harris find reason and science to be supreme and thus cut themselves off from an essential part of the human experience--the emotional need to be connected to something beyond themselves. As such, they cheat themselves, hoping to find a glimmer of something vaguely "out there" while fearful of believing in God. Their rational arrogance blinds them.

In thinking of Harris, Dawkins, and the atheist I recently talked with, I wonder, What God do they not believe in?  The simplistic God "up in the sky" that children learn about?  Why don't they read more widely in philosophy (even medieval thought) and see that God is being itself, the "ground of our being," the inescapable presence that's all around and in us? If they would read Teilhard de Chardin and other scientists who have explored the connection between faith and science, maybe they would be more open to a fuller understanding of the Mystery.

In the meantime, some of the new atheists, like a few in California, feeling the need for some community on Sunday mornings, have established "churches" of sorts, where positive thinking is practiced. It may sound absurd for atheists to meet in "churches," but does it not indicate the human need to go beyond the isolated, rational mind and reach out to others?  And in reaching out to others, and caring about them, are we not embracing love and thereby affirming that life has purpose and meaning? If so, we can talk about, even believe in God.

That organized religion, included Catholicism, has often failed to articulate an understanding of a loving God is clear from a recently influential book by Walter Kasper on mercy, which is influencing the deliberations among the bishops in Rome this week. Cardinal Kasper writes: Theologians have too often had difficulty making sense of God's compassion: "The proclamation of God who is insensitive to suffering is a reason that God has become alien and finally irrelevant to many."

So it is up to believers to articulate a fuller understanding of the mystery of God as the source of existence and compassion in a way that makes sense to a skeptical world: no easy task!

Friday, October 10, 2014

A cynic's guide to social noise

Many of the people I know have tastes in reading (and movies) different from mine.  When a neighbor lent us a favorite video, which not something of interest to us, I returned it recently, with thanks. He asked how I liked it.

Suddenly I was faced with the familiar dilemma of making white lies sound like polite social noise. "Very enjoyable," I said. "Well done." (I had not bothered to play it, knowing it was not worth my time.) He went on: "We loved it. Would you like to keep it a white longer?"

I would rather spend an hour in the dentist's chair, but I smiled politely and said something about being busy getting ready for an upcoming trip (the truth).

This prompted me to think of all the times in the past year or so when I have been confronted with familiar situations, in which the devilish side of me wants to be cynical (though I never am), as follows:

1. I routinely say, "how are you?"  (Do I really want to know? Do I want an organ recital--what a  friend calls chatting with people of a certain age who immediately list their ailments?)

2. "So glad to see you."  (I really mean, I hope this chat is brief and less boring than the last one we had OR I was enjoying the quiet time to think before you appeared.)

3. "You look wonderful" (despite the weight gain/wrinkles/age spots/ missing teeth/ thinning hair)

4. At the end of a phone call, I will say, "So glad you called."  (Please don't do so for another year or more; in fact, not calling at all would be ideal.)

5. Or if I missed a call, probably because I use an answering machine to screen those who phone us: "Sorry I missed your call."  (Actually, I am happy to have had some time to think of a polite way to get out of the invitation you put on my machine; or: I wish you hadn't called at all since I know you always complain about something.)

6. And of course, on receiving a gift, "How thoughtful." (Better than the old "just what I always wanted," which is both sarcastic and trite; yet thinking of me at Christmas is thoughtful, so I should be grateful, but why do you always get things for me that either don't fit or that I don't want? Give me cash!")

Ah, the pain of being polite and feeling guilty for being hypocritical; yet the truth would be worse than the lie, however much fun it might sometimes be for me to be honest.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Grammar and Style: an Example

The noted linguist Steven Pinker in his new book The Sense of Style is quoted on the internet as objecting to those grammatical purists who insist on correcting dangling modifiers, as when a sentence opens with a verb phrase that has no modifier:  "Driving down the road, the cat escaped."  Who is driving? The cat?

He asks, where did that rule prohibiting such modifiers come from, and what is its basis?

Although I don't think of myself as a purist or a stickler for "rules," I am the co-author of a textbook of grammar, The Practical Handbook for Writers (7th ed.), which advises writers to avoid the practice of having modifiers "dangle."  Of course, in spoken English, or in writing that is meant to sound colloquial, the convention (or "rule") can easily be overlooked.

Pinker says that fine stylists "use dangling modifiers all the time."  In Britain, perhaps many do, but not in American usage. If they are fiction writers, or journalists trying to capture someone's speech, perhaps they can get by with a dangler; but in this country, a good editor of any respectable journal or book publisher should suggest that the following danglers be re-worded:

   To become a nurse, at least four years of study work are required. (To become a nurse, you need/one needs to study at least four years.)  Why put the main clause in the passive voice, which prompts the dangling modifier?

   Turning the corner, a beautiful view awaited me (Pinker's example) which should be: "As I turned the corner/Turning the corner, I saw/encountered a beautiful view."  Or, if he wants to use the passive voice, "As I turned the corner, a beautiful view awaited me." Someone has to do the turning!

Or, to edit the cat example above:  "While we were driving down the road, the cat escaped."

Pinker wonders why anyone would make such a change, asserting that "there is no rule prohibiting a dangling modifier."  There is, I respectfully suggest, a logical reason--something better than an artificial rule--since the "driving" or other verbal has to modify a human subject who is doing the driving or turning or whatever. The issue is one of logic, the basis of the American convention. The Brits don't seem to worry about this problem.

It's true that there are several old-fashioned "rules" inherited from Latin practice in the 19th century that no longer apply in written English, such as "never end a sentence with a preposition" or "never split an infinitive."  Prinker has every right to question such usage in the 21st century.

But I hope editors and writers do not apply Pinker's rejection of the dangling "rule" to everything they write.  I would re-word any dangling modifier to make it less jarring, more logical and therefore more grammatical in anything I write for publication--unless I wanted to sound casual or colloquial.  But then, I am a hopelessly American purist.

Monday, October 6, 2014

The silence of a Polish film

One of the striking things about the memorable Polish film Ida is its silence. Scenes unfold without much music and in square frames reminiscent of films from 1962, when the story is set. This keeps the characters generally distant from the viewer, shadowed in the mystery that informs them.

The main character, who is called Anna, a novice about to take final vows in a Catholic convent somewhere in Poland, is told by her only relative, Wanda, that, in fact, the young woman's name is Ida Lebenstein. She was a Jewish child taken from her parents during the war and raised in an orphanage.

She responds to this, and to all the other surprises that await her, with a quiet reserve and stillness as well as with wide eyes. As she and her aunt travel in search of the family's burial place, we are shown, amid the grim Polish countryside, glimmers of light and meaning as one chapter in the history of European suffering is illuminated with a remarkable eloquence.

The characters have mysterious depths and raise unanswered questions, and the narrative generates a restrained suspense. This is not a movie with broad appeal--unless you are looking for something artful and purely cinematic with a spiritual depth.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

A Perfect Novel (?)

I have just completed a remarkably fine novel, widely unknown, from 1965, now reprinted by Vintage Classics: Stoner by John Williams.

How is it possible that the books of this American author, who died about twenty years ago after teaching at the University of Denver, are not better known?

I tend to avoid academic novels, set on university campuses--with the exception of David Lodge's work--because I have endured in real life enough of the petty conflicts and rivalries found in universities.  But Stoner, although set on the University of Missouri campus, transcends this genre.  It transcends most of the novels I have read in style, subject, and that elusive thing called tone.

The narrative proceeds with a deceptively simple clarity, touched with the tone of ironic detachment found in Tolstoi's masterpiece, The Death of Ivan Ilych, the only work that compares to Williams' novel, even though the American work lacks any religious or transcendent meaning in its powerful account of the ordinary life of an ordinary man..

Like Tolstoi's novella, Stoner ends with the death of its protagonist, a professor named William Stoner, whose passing is announced on the first page in an amazing sentence:  "Stoner's colleagues, who held him in no particular esteem when he was alive, speak of him rarely now; to the older ones, his name is a reminder of the end that awaits them all, and to the younger ones it is merely a sound which evokes no sense of the past and no identity with which they can associate themselves or their careers."

I defy any reader of that first page to do anything but read on, even though the bleak sense of disappointment that Stoner finds in his life evokes great sadness. But it is the sadness of great tragedy, as a man who doesn't believe he has made any difference in the world finds that an inner life pushes through the hard surface of desperation, allowing him to see that love--both the love of literature and the lost love of one woman--give a few glimmers of meaning and purpose to his life.

Stoner, who begins life on a Missouri farm, is a stoic figure whose sense of wonder remains hidden in him, with rare glimpses of light penetrating the darkness around him. His family are half-frozen by fear and beaten down by loneliness: the world of Stoner is grim and full of tragic inevitability. Yet the main character, despite his great reserve and quiet desperation, manages to assert himself in the academic battles of the University while quietly accepting the fact that his marriage, like much of his life, has been a bitter disappointment.  (I can't help but think of Thoreau's line: "The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.)

This simple story is told in a prose style that is plain yet quietly poetic, a perfect reflection of its protagonist. Stoner's life is told dispassionately but so eloquently that we sense its universal power, for the themes are nothing less than love and death.  Williams himself referred to his novel as "an escape into reality," and there is something inexpressible about the reality that we uncover as we read the novel, transfixed by its calm, lucid, controlled surface. And by Stoner's dual awareness of himself as living somehow outside his ordinary self, in those timeless moments he finds in his reading that bring him a sense of identity and satisfaction.

Stoner has been called a perfect novel; it is one that I look forward to re-reading more than once for its subtlety and tone, for its mastery of character and style.